“Side By Side” is interesting because it is a snapshot of a moment, an attempt to capture an argument mid-stream, one that will be resolved at some point soon but which is, right now, one of the primary conversations happening about the state of our industry.
Virtually all of the student filmmaking work I did was on video. We were lucky enough at my high school to have a non-linear editing suite, but these were the days of VHS to VHS, and it was still crude compared to the editing firepower available to anyone with a laptop these days. At that point, video was not in competition with film for the business of movie making. It just wasn’t an option. The best-looking film shot on video was still shot on video. It was something even the least sophisticated viewer could see right away.
These days, digital projection and digital filmmaking are so technically sophisticated that the entire conversation has had to change. The question is no longer “does video look as good as film?” because we’ve realized that isn’t the point. Video still has a number of signatures that make it different from film, but instead of being limitations now, they are just differences, and the best artists working in movies today are hotly divided over which tools to use, what to use them for, and what it means for the art as a whole.
That’s where “Side By Side” fits. In the film, pro-digital advocate David Fincher is given just as much time and weight as pro-film advocate Christopher Nolan, and they both make their cases well. They are smart men who believe that the tools they’re using are essential to the way they tell stories. Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister love film. They love large-format film. They love the clarity of the image and the rich, dense photochemical look of reality and light captured on film. They make their case as well as anyone could, but nothing they say can effectively argue against the excitement we hear from Fincher or from the Wachowskis or from Roger Deakins, just to name a few of the people we see in this film, all of them just as invested in their position. Michael Chapman is a legendary cinematographer. He shot “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” for god’s sake. Even more impressively, he was the one who convinced Spielberg that he could shoot handheld footage onboard the Orca in “Jaws,” and he was the operator who actually did it. He seems willing to move forward, excited about the new control he has over the image, clear-eyed and unsentimental about film in general.
The film is unrepentantly technical, and I appreciated seeing a film that digs deep into the conversation instead of just playing on emotion or surface explanations. Christopher Kenneally does excellent work here, and Keanu Reeves is a very engaging presence, a good interviewer who is able to get wonderful, relaxed reactions out of the people he’s with. They talk to Anne V. Coates, the legendary editor who cut “Lawrence Of Arabia,” and she talks about how one of the single most famous cuts of all time was a result of her dislike for the way dissolves and fades looked in the age the film was made. If she was working with an Avid or Final Cut today, she admits she might have handled that transition differently, a thought which blows my mind. Greta Gerwig talks about how freaked out she was the first time she heard film running through a camera while making “Arthur.” Up till that point, everything she’d been in had been shot with video cameras of some kind, and to her, that sound was like hearing dollar bills rolling by.
We had a nice chunk of time with Reeves to chat, and the result is a loose and interesting conversation about the film and the issues it raises. When you have a little more time with someone, you can start to really have a conversation with some weight, and I’m very pleased with the way this came out.
“Side By Side” is in select theaters now, and will be available on VOD this weekend.